May 11, 2012

User Experience Design - Why it Matters

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to take a course in User Experience Design (UXD) with a few of my colleagues from New York and Dallas. Thanks to a well-balanced combination of lecture and project work, we left the course with a wealth of new knowledge which we are very excited to be putting into practice at our organization. While I always had an interest in user experience, I am now better able to articulate what UXD is, why it’s so important, and how it can be integrated with real-world projects. In this post, I'll start by explaining why you should care about UXD.

Why does it Matter?

While in many cases it's easy to dismiss a great user experience as "nice-to-have," that’s truly not the case. Regardless of the product you're creating, a user-centered design process is integral to increasing user adoption, satisfaction, and loyalty. In the end, this saves plenty of time and money as well. I’ve seen many projects which were completed on-time, on-budget, and to spec, and yet were considered complete failures a year later because users simply weren't happy and refused to adopt the product. In some cases, companies try to salvage their effort by spending huge amounts of time and money on marketing and training. In others, the project is scrapped almost entirely and substantial redevelopment takes place. Needless to say, it's best to get things right the first time!

Not that user-centered design is a one-and-done type of process. It is agile and iterative, and involves users every step of the way. Techniques such as prototyping enable users to visualize the product and provide feedback throughout the design phase, ensuring that development will be focused on a well-designed, effective solution. Continued user involvement throughout development will help refine the product as it is built. Post-development, usability testing can focus on minor aesthetic details rather than identifying gaps in functionality after they’re too late to fix.

Keeping users engaged throughout the development process increases buy-in and generates buzz ahead of deployment, which leads to more rapid adoption. And once users finally get hands-on with the product, they're bound to love it – after all, they helped build it. Training will be far less necessary (users can be productive on day one), enhancement requests fewer and farther between, and support costs kept to a minimum.

Why it's a Formal Discipline

While I (and I'm sure most of you) have always worked hard to deliver the optimal solutions for our clients, I've found that doing so really isn’t as easy as "putting yourself in the user’s shoes." We all have personal biases towards specific processes or technologies, and we often make small decisions without even realizing there is a decision to be made. Many of the techniques I learned at the UXD course can be extremely effective in helping us truly understand our users and keep them at the forefront without letting our own opinions get in the way.

User experience design is a philosophy which should be adopted and integrated into any product development process. The upfront costs associated with performing user analysis and continuously gathering feedback pale in comparison to the inevitable costs of training, support, and redevelopment resulting from projects during which the users were not involved. Better yet, UXD doesn't completely redefine the notion of how a project is completed; rather, it provides a set of tools by which to ensure that the final product will be ideally suited to its users. The chances of a project achieving success will be greatly enhanced, but even more importantly, users won't just be satisfied with the experience you provide – they'll want to experience it again.

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